Saw the accusatory term ‘sheeple’ being bandied about lately so I typed the word ‘sheeple’ into the search engine and got this: Sheeple ˈʃiːp(ə)l/ noun. Derogatory. People compared to sheep in being docile, foolish, or easily led.
Call me crazy (cheers to those that already have…) but I reckon this is sourced from our high holiday prayers. The famous prayer ‘unetane Tokef’ concludes with the words ‘yaavrun lefanecha kivnei Marom’
Hebrew is a versatile language. The same word can mean several (often opposing) things. The Talmud suggest these words ‘kivne marom’ can mean ‘like sheep.’ We pass before the Lord like sheep. Sheeple. ‘Docile foolish and easily led.’ A second interpretation is that it can mean ‘like lofty, strong people such as soldiers’. We pass before the Lord with strength, dignity as leaders – not sheeple.
The question then is, how are we living our life?
On the 25th of February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, then Secretary of the Communist Party delivered his famous ‘secret speech’ which for the first time sharply criticized Joseph Stalin. In a secret seven-hour speech in the Politburo, Khrushchev chronicled the crimes of Stalin, he depicted Stalin as a monster who had launched terror campaigns against every citizen of Russia and derailed the Soviet Union off its ‘noble’ course.
Almost no questions or challenges were raised during this speech save one interjection. In the midst of his speech, a party member yelled out from the back of the chamber:
“And Nikita Khrushchev, where were you when all this was going on?”
Khrushchev looked up and shot back, pounding the podium: “Who said that? I demand to know who said these words! Stand up!” The entire hall fell silent. No one moved.
“Comrade, that’s where I was.”
There is this somewhat obscure and puzzling Torah law in this weeks Parshah. The law of Eglah Arufah (Deuteronomy 21). When a murdered traveller is found out in the field, the elders of the nearest city must go out there and conduct a ceremony to atone for the crime, even though it occurred “outside of their jurisdiction”;
The classical commentators point out that although they obviously didn’t commit the crime, and although the crime occurred outside of their jurisdiction, they are still responsible for they should have endeavoured to support all travellers passing through the area ‘with adequate provision and protection’ (Talmud Sotah 45a)
What an extraordinary degree of social responsibility. It seems the Torah is telling us that the moment we become aware of a social failing, crisis of shortfall (or even if we don’t become aware but should have) we become ultimately responsible.
The next time you notice the fetid stench of a decaying society and the inclination arises to lament said stench on your Facebook status or some other such medium of radical social revolution consider the echos of the eternal question: “and where are you while all this is going on?”
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dovid Gutnick
East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation